The 2012 BIL Conference: Geek Learning and Yearning
The BIL conference happened this year on the weekend of March 2nd and 3rd aboard the 1930s ocean liner The Queen Mary right across the bay from the world famous TED talks, and in the same week. Docked in the unseasonably gray and cold Long Beach, even the weather couldn’t bring down the festivities, and after a round or two of- ‘should we go?’ ‘shouldn’t we?,’ my step dad and I bought place tickets, me from New York and him from Hawaii, to meet in the middle. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, and had very little excuse to since my mother died, so our mutual, profound love of Sci-Fi and technology got the best of us and off we were on a father/daughter trip. In fact, he is probably in part responsible for this love, feeding me a healthy diet of Cordwainer Smith, Robert Heinlen, John Varley, when just a teenager. Plus, we both needed connections for our flagging careers (well, mine never got launched, but it was a good excuse) and with his description of BIL- a cross between the TED talks and Burning Man, we were off. Before my step-dad, Donald’s proposal, I’d never even heard of it. Perhaps you’ve never heard of it either; even though they claim to be in collaboration and not in competition with TED, whose ticket price are a hefty $7.5G a pop, conveying a sense of exclusionary entrance, the cool accessibility of the BIL- fifty bucks for a weekend of panels and all the Gyros and Oikos you can eat, BIL boasts ‘a wild mix of technologists, scientists, artists, hackers, and those with a passion for community awareness’- at discount rates. Actually, the creators of BIL are in the act of creating as they go, as all panelist are self-curated, and take much from the Burning Man mentality, where spontaneous creation is encouraged and it’s all volunteer run. If you have an idea you want to present, sign up. BIL is a space meant to connect, create, grow new ideas, and get collaborators. And, it seems, to get laid (but not by me).
We got there early by a day and a half, thinking maybe there would be events Friday night before, but nope, there weren’t and Long Beach (dear Lord) was a corporate eyesore, seven miles away from the nearest Whole Foods, coffee shop, or bookstore. Really there was nothing to do besides watch Donald’s Season One ‘Fringe’ box set, walk round and round the boat, and get to know our neighbors a little too well. On either side of our small cabin, paper thin Art Deco paneling disguised as walls gave us intimate access to the neighboring cabin’s dramas: one couple’s argument over what the hell it was I still can’t tell you, another couple’s drunken animal noises, and yet another’s wall banging sex. Even with ear-buds plugged into my Mac Book, there was only so much ‘Fringe’ I could pretend was absorbing the rhythmic bunk pounding on the other side of the Mahogony headboard. Hi, dad. Awkward.
The first day started slow. But a bunch of old friends, introductions, smiles and handshakes later, the talks started up around the three levels of the ship’s basement. The Master of Ceremonies was the extremely entertaining Baron Reichart Von Wolfsheild, CSA, host of History Channel’s Invention USA., and Hike-the-Geek. The co-host, Simone Syed, from GammaPay, PaleoDream, and LA Space Salon, seemed to have a dominatrix vibe to her organizing, and indeed, the duo did call themselves ‘the benevolent dictatorship,’ enthusiastically met by the masses. I met the Baron right off the bat, as he’s my step-dad’s neighbor in Hawaii, and any friend of Donald Gilmore’s is a friend of mine. But, the Baron did not disappoint. He automaticlly disarmed me with a bold comment, then a hasty retreat, plus wearing some sort of footwear made from stuffed animals (dogs on the first day, penguins on the second). One soon got the feeling that he was always on air, that there was always some form of camera pointed his way, and I found myself more than a couple of times looking over my shoulder for the camera man when we would interact. His bold comment- ‘all women want to sleep with me. I have to fight them off,’ also made me wonder if A). this was scripted material, B). He was that comfortable with me as to confide that kind of information, C). He thought perhaps all women wanted or needed to hear that, or D). that maybe I might have something to contribute. I tried to make small talk, but it didn’t work, hence the hasty retreat. I had no intention of sleeping with anyone, had no desire to even dress up, look good, or flirt, having wrongly assumed a tech conference would be a safe bet not to have to think about that kind of thing. But, as the Baron eagerly highlighted, the conference was not just a space to learn and connect, but for geeks to get out of their shells, of their isolated cranial domes of genius- and hook up. Well, cool… if that’s your priority.
Here’s what I learned- the panels were a blast: smart cities (like smart phones- by Jamshid “Jimmy” Delshad, first ever Muslim Mayor in America, and of Beverly Hills, no less), anti-aging (by Aubrey De Grey, in the field of gerontology, and the Chief Science Officer of the SENS Foundation, and should be hilarious British stand up comedian and rapper, too), appeals toward the sanity of cryogenics (by Max More, a handsome man, with an endearing air of disappointment at why the world hasn’t latched on), integrated energy efficiency portals like in California (by Ray Podder, whose imagination towards permaculture and energy efficiency is spectacular), the intersection of emerging technologies, environmental dilemmas, and cultural transformation (by yet another stand-up comedian worthy scientist, Jamais Cascio), the design and creation of plausible scenarios of the future organizing software for the profoundly disorganized political left, in the Occupy Movement (by charming Mikah Vogel of Burning Man), teaching kids to code in grammar and high schools by making all knowledge playable in games (Code Hero by Alex Peake, and multi-code learning games by Gates Foundation recipient, Lucien Vattel), the apex of art, technology and science (Alexandros Pagidas at TheGlint), bio-hacking and anti-aging with diets (like Paleo pioneer’s Josh Whiton, and the coffee, butter and salt phenomenon with Dave Asprey), driver-less cars, space flight, self governed ocean communities, and more. Plus, there was the ‘Sex-Positive Boiler Room’ for geeks and freaks in need of some sexual healing. All very positive and forward thinking, if not a little awkward.
Much to my disappointment, I seemed to have missed most of the brainius women who were on other stages, but all told, women speakers were out-numbered by the men. I would have had way more of a boner for the BIL Conference had there been more women sci-folk. I was hungry for inspiration. I actually think the organizers would have liked that too, so I’m not saying anything new here and being new to tweet-avism (@amandacole11), BIL tweeters requested that I keep my eyes open for those smart ladies for next year’s BIL (hi @makingawesome). I did catch the amazing Chelsea Rustrum, who spoke on the power of the Sharing in the Age of Social Media, and caught the second half of the astronaut girl and guy who met in the Space Program, fell in love and had a family. But, where are all the smart women? If you know of any, please tweet me or let me know here at ambientintel!
Then, there was the oasis in the eye of the storm: in the center of all the hustle and bustle (a main stage, several side stages, a community area, cupping and reiki stations, home-grown spontaneous panelists and body workers) was Barnaby Gallagher’s Tea Room. A table set with crystals, tarot cards, shamanic artifacts and a flying carpet (his mom’s fake Persian carpet spread over a foldaway mattress). The bustling vortex of chaos disappeared and you could relax and take a rest in the tea room and get small doses of intimacy, almost like you were in a separate room, not the big busy bowels of a ship sized conference. In fact, by the end of the two days, Barnaby was calling me his groupie because I must have gone back about a dozen times and sat for long stretches of time. Social anxiety disorders are common among our kind: hackers, geeks, scientists, organizers and artists- and we often would sometimes rather jump off the Queen Mary than look another person in the eye for more than a few seconds at time. But at Barnaby’s Tea Room, you could get some respite, get your cards read, and an elaborate tea service as if his tea spout were some sort of kamikaze dagger, slicing it’s stream of green or black teas into tiny ceramic cups with the aim of a archer. Then, before you knew it, the very person who had just given the most interesting talk was actually sitting right next to you, opening up and getting their cards read too, also in a state of profound relief at having a reason to sit still. One on one time, or one-on-three or four time, which was the case on the flying carpet, could be achieved. Profoundly more sexy to be comfortable in your own skin at Barnaby’s Tea Room than anywhere else.
In Barnaby’s Tea Room, I spoke with my favorite people, panelist Lucien Vattel, Gates Foundation recipient to implement coding programs where kids rebuild the world, from math to history, from the ground up, to Jennifer Dowd, a leggy blond filmmaker my age who had escaped New York and moved to the sun hugging city of Los Angeles, whose every word I hung onto like a life preserver (I want to leave the New Yortex, too), to Ray Podder, whose panel on available underutilized energy resources compared to the current waste through inefficiency, was the quintessential panel of our times. Then there was Barnaby, who seemed as the Baron put it, ‘so random,’ whose effectiveness was his ability to do what the whole conference was trying to do, with ease and elegance: to get people to connect. Only twenty four years old, Barnaby created a safe space for intellect and dream to meet. No apologies or explanations for his totems, magic, cards and crystals, his lack of scientific proof of occult-ish embracings, his sheer open hearted fun and mischief making.
Over-all, I highly recommend the BIL conference to anyone who cares about being in community in the realm of sharing ideas in technology and future forward thinking. I don’t know how it slipped under the radar, even though it’s only a few years old. I am sure some geeks hooked up in all manners of connection. I know I did (but not in the biblical sense).